Released 6 May 2021. Details coming soon; read on for excerpts from the book…
Afterwards, when locals reflected on the whole affair, no one had had the slightest indication that this summer would be different from any previous ones. After all, life in a small seaside town tends to follow a fairly predictable rhythm. Slow and quiet in the winter months, people hunkering down to shorter days, longer nights, darker skies and more turbulent seas. Then, with the promise of spring, rousing themselves to undertake the cleaning, painting and repairs necessary to be ready for the coming season. In this respect, Derrybeggs was no different from countless other seaside towns whose inhabitants depend on the whims of tourists and day-trippers to visit and stay awhile. Like other remote corners of the world, they are a tightly knit community ‒ hardy, loyal, and fiercely protective of one another.
It’s true that many of the young people leave, lured by the promise of modern, faster, more lucrative lifestyles, only to return in years to come as sentimental tourists, but those who stay reap other rewards.
Although living cheek and jowl with this level of neighbourly intimacy can sometimes feel irritatingly claustrophobic, the people of Derrybeggs tolerate it with reasonable good humour. For how else can a small community protect itself?
So, it would be reasonable to assume that an unfamiliar character turning up and lingering for a while would not go unnoticed … and this indeed was the case when Charlie first made his appearance on that memorable June day last summer. Charlie couldn’t remember his name, or anything much else about who he was before he turned up in Derrybeggs ‒ but that was how the whole thing began …
One of the many ironies of old age, Peggy Muldowney observed, as she groped to turn off her phone alarm before it went off, was that, although she needed less sleep and could wake up ready to spring out of bed at a totter, if not a leap, there was far less for her to do. That meant the additional hours gained, especially now in summertime, could stretch ominously ahead if she didn’t plan her days with precision. Routine was everything – and she had hers down to a fine art. It was said you could set your clock by her. Looking out of her window, another beautiful June day seemed poised to unfold in Derrybeggs.
At this time of year Peggy would normally have been tying up details for the local annual film festival she had been involved with for many years, but younger people had taken over now and Peggy had deduced that her services were no longer required. This had not been articulated, of course – she was still on the committee, such as it was – but some of the younger women, particularly that blow-in from Dublin, Kate Carmichael, and her crowd had muscled in on the event, declaring it needed a cultural makeover to drag it into the twenty-first century. The makeover, as far as Peggy could determine, seemed to consist of vast amounts of energy being spent on finding a suitable celebrity to be guest of honour at the two- day event and very little else – even though the festival was due to open in three weeks’ time. Many other important details, Peggy knew, had been overlooked. There had been little advertising for starters, hardly surprising, Peggy thought, since they didn’t have a venue. The community hall where they used to show the films was unavailable due to fire damage, and the committee was now searching frantically for a suitable substitute. The shabby old golf club had disappeared, replaced by a new posh version complete with spa, but when they had relayed the request to the American headquarters of the property mogul who now owned it, the cost of renting it was ridiculously prohibitive. That was the problem, Peggy had pointed out, when transatlantic billionaires were in charge of a major part of Derrybeggs’s facilities. Oh, well, it wasn’t her place to interfere – no one was interested in her opinion any more.
But a distinct sense of panic was making itself felt in the village now. Local business depended on the economic boost of the annual festival, not least the Seashell café, which benefited from the catering contract. At least a celebrity had been nailed down as guest of honour. She hadn’t been the committee’s first choice (the American movie star filming in Dublin had politely declined) but Peggy was looking forward to meeting Molly Cusack. She remembered her as a child when she and her parents used to holiday in Derrybeggs, and Molly had gone on to become extremely successful on the British small screen, starring in several much-loved TV sitcoms over the years.
Peggy was heading out on her Rollator for her morning coffee when she saw him …
She could get about in her small flat with her walking stick, but she needed the security of something more substantial to make her way to the village and back.The Rollator was marvellous – a walking frame on wheels, Dr Rob had explained to her, with a bag for some light shopping, and if she got tired she could put on the brakes, pull down the small seat, sit on it and have a little rest. She did this quite often, not because she needed to but because she liked taking a little breather to pass the time and look about her – it made her feel more connected to things. It also meant she missed very little. It was amazing what you saw and heard if you were old and quietly observant – almost as if you were invisible.
That morning Peggy took her usual route, turning right out of her front gate with Muppet, her beloved poodle/Yorkie mix trotting beside her. To her left, a low haze hung over the lake ‒ it would burn off later ‒ and a quartet of swans glided over the calm silver water. Along either side, ancient dry-stone walls were drenched with a scarlet trail of fuchsia. The village – when she reached it ‒ seemed quieter than usual at this time of the morning. It greeted her cheerfully, vibrant in its new summer best, brightly painted houses and shops seeming to jostle for attention. Lovingly tended flower baskets hung from awnings and lampposts, and cascaded from newly purposed beer barrels. The place was a profusion of colour.
She had been looking forward to her first cup of coffee when she saw the café wasn’t open. For a moment she wondered if something was amiss ‒ never in living memory had the Seashell not opened on time ‒ then checked her watch. She was an hour early. How on earth had that happened? She never got the time wrong. For one horribly long second she wondered if she was losing her marbles – was this how it started? It gave her such a jolt she had to pull up on the pavement and sit down. She took out and lit a cigarette with trembling fingers.
That was when she noticed him. A younger man ‒ in his seventies, maybe. And handsome, a distinguished profile, but he looked down on his luck. He was peering into the café window, trying to work out if it was open, she assumed. She hadn’t seen him before – he definitely wasn’t local.
‘It’s not open,’ she said, pointing to her watch. ‘Doesn’t open till eight. I don’t know how I’m this early – I must have got the time wrong.’ She shook her head, blowing a plume of smoke from the side of her mouth.
He strolled over to her, smiling. ‘Are you all right there? Can I give you any assistance?’ He seemed concerned.
‘I’m fine, thank you. Or, at least, I would be if I hadn’t somehow muddled the time – and now I’m an hour early, which knocks my whole day out. I can’t think how I managed that. No wonder Muppet was surprised to be going out.’ She reached down to ruffle the dog’s head.
‘That’s a cute dog you’ve got there,’ he said. ‘Not open till eight, huh? That’s pretty strange. What kind of a one-horse town won’t serve a guy a cup of joe before work?’
‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ Peggy smiled up at him.
‘It’s a pretty place … nice to be by the ocean again.’ He gestured towards the sea.
But Peggy noted he hadn’t answered her question. ‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ She tilted her head. ‘And every day there’s a different view. Are you visiting?’
He smiled again, rather absently, as if he were lost in thought. Then he collected himself. ‘Say, can I help you at all?’
She thanked him, but said no, explaining that she sometimes liked to stop and sit for a while before continuing on her journey – or, in this case, that she would sit outside until the café opened. ‘No point going back now. Muppet and I will just enjoy the view.’
‘I understand.’ He nodded. ‘Good call.’
He was very nice, Peggy thought. Very gentlemanly. ‘I’m Peggy,’ she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Good to meet you Peggy.’ He smiled. ‘I think I’ll be getting along now. You have a good day!’
She had thought that a little odd. But then Americans could be odd.
Molly checked her appearance in the hall mirror before heading out to the waiting taxi to take her to Heathrow airport. She didn’t bother with dark glasses ‒ the feeblest disguise employed by people who really did want to attract attention to themselves: the curled dark grey wig would be more than effective, particularly when coupled with a light raincoat and sensible shoes. For now, she took a last look at her shoulder-length layered blonde bob, before it disappeared under the wig, then hid her slim figure under the dowdy coat. Her normally dewy complexion was concealed under a heavy dusting of face powder. Usually Molly employed makeup to help her look younger. Ageing herself made a change but it was also alarmingly easy. The forecast was good – she had checked before leaving ‒ but June was always unreliable, especially in Ireland. In London they were having a particularly warm spell, and underneath the wig her scalp prickled uncomfortably.
It wasn’t that she was terribly famous, more irritatingly familiar. Over the years she had featured in enough weekly TV dramas and sitcoms for people to feel compelled to stop her in public and ask the inevitable questions – ‘Don’t I know you? Aren’t you that actress who …?’ Mostly she was more than happy to stop and chat. After all, if you were going to invade people’s living rooms on a regular basis, she felt, the least you could do was say hello to them in real life.
In the back of the taxi, on her way to Heathrow, Molly scrolled through the email from her agent on her phone and felt another dart of panic. It was just under three months since Larry had suggested she write a memoir and at the time it had seemed like a good idea. Now he was cheerily asking about the word count. There was a time, Molly reflected, as she hastily clicked out of the email, when the notion of writing a memoir would have brought her out in a nasty rash. The very thought of it had made her insides curl. Memoirs, she reckoned, meant life as you knew it was behind you, along with your career. Your shelf life was over and all that remained was to record the luminous moments, deflect or sensationalise the less than pleasant episodes, slap it between two covers and hope that it would bring in a few bob.
But then, so stealthily that she had hardly noticed it ‒ not unlike some unwelcome hormonal upheaval – acting work had begun to dry up. That, and the horrible coincidence of Molly losing her two best friends in quick succession, had led to Larry suggesting the memoir as a possible stopgap while she considered her career options. Molly could still hardly take in that her dear friend and contemporary Julia Hepworth had had a stroke and was confined to a nursing home for the foreseeable future. Beautiful Julia, darling of stage and screen, with an accent that could cut steel and an attitude that could level cities, was now without speech and paralysed. Julia and Molly had attended RADA together in the seventies, and embarked on a lifelong friendship. Just a month later, Molly’s other cherished friend, darling Nigel, who had been her on-screen husband for the run of a hugely popular TV series, and a lifetime friend and ally, had been found dead at the foot of his stairs. It was too cruel, too unreal. Molly had counted on marching irreverently into old age with Julia and Nigel.
Finally, to cap it all, a role she had been assured of, one she had been prepared to throw herself into – relied on to get her through this awful time of grief and loss – had gone to another actress. A forty-seven-year-old actress. That the role in question was to portray a sixty-five-year-old business maverick (Molly was a well- maintained sixty-three) was apparently inconsequential. The woman in question, her usurper, was a good actress ‒ Molly was an admirer of her work – but she looked and acted like a teenager off screen, and was (Larry reliably informed her) on her third face lift. ‘Seriously, Moll, this came from totally out of left field. Alex swore the part was yours.’ Larry had been furious. ‘The contract was—’
‘Oh, never mind,’ Molly said, when she got her wind back. ‘It’s not as if someone’s died.’
‘Well, no, but—’
‘I’ll take it as a sign.’
‘A sign of what?’
‘That I need another career.’ She was only half joking.
‘Don’t be silly.’ Larry smiled. ‘This is just a tricky patch.’ He looked at her over his glasses. ‘You’re too old for leading lady and too young for old dame. Although I have been thinking.’ He leaned back in his chair, wearing his I’ll just try floating this idea out there expression.
‘How would you feel about a writing a memoir?’
‘What ‒ now?’
‘You’ve led a very interesting life, Moll, got legions of devoted fans – they’d lap it up – and I know just who to pitch it to. It’ll be nicely lucrative too.’
‘I’m not sure I could do it.’ Molly was reticent. She allowed the suggestion to linger.
‘Of course you can. You’d be a lovely writer – I know you would. No one tells a story like you do when you’re in full flight. Writing’s the same as talking – it’s all about the voice.’
‘Do you really think so?’
‘Definitely. In fact, the more I think about, it the more certain I am. And’ – he held his best card till last – ‘you’d be able to tell all those wonderful anecdotes about Julia and Nigel and the scrapes you got into over the years. People would adore to read about them.’
‘That’s true – it’s a shame to keep them to myself.’ She chewed her lip. ‘All right ‒ I’ll do it!’
‘Marvellous!’ Larry’s intake of breath followed by a rush of relieved enthusiasm told Molly everything she needed to know. That for a while, six months at least, her acting career, or lack of it, wouldn’t be Larry’s problem.
‘Any thoughts on a title?’ Larry was clearly keen to get down to business.
Molly hadn’t, but one came to her now. ‘Acting Out?’
‘See? You’re a natural! I love it!’ Said Larry. ‘Hurry up and write it and send me your first draft – I can hardly wait.’
In the event, she hadn’t had to write a first draft – just a sample chapter and a vague outline had been enough for Larry to secure her a deal – but now she needed to get down to work.
Buoyed up by Larry’s enthusiasm and her own impulsivity, Molly had happily thrown herself into her new project. She’d exchanged her rather dated old laptop for a razor thin shiny new one, downloaded some snazzy software ‒ she wasn’t quite sure what it was for, but people on forums seemed to rate it ‒ and spent quite a lot of time flicking through on-line writing courses, often getting lost for hours in distracting links. She’d had no idea writing could be such fun. She even ordered some gorgeous new cashmere loungewear so she could look the part – pyjamas, although handier, would have been a step too far, and not quite as glamorous.
When she signed the contract, Larry took her to lunch in their favourite Soho haunt and they celebrated with champagne. Now it was real. She had a new career, starting right now. The trouble was, when all the excitement was over and she was back in her flat, with a deadline to work to, Molly found the blank page very uncooperative. She had made notes, lots of them, scribbled in various notebooks and journals over the years – but as soon as she began to write a piece in earnest she decided before she reached the end of the page she didn’t like it. The problem, she felt, was that writing a memoir about her life when it didn’t seem quite over was proving tricky: it was getting in the way – blocking her.
Then the days began to slip by, sneakily, gathering momentum just when she wanted them to slacken to their previous interminable rhythm. She began to panic. It occurred to her that perhaps all she needed was a change of scene. Then ‒ as if to facilitate such – the invitation had arrived. Molly opened the envelope. These days her post seemed to consist of either bills or obscure theatre promotions, neither of which she felt inclined to study. But this, forwarded from Larry, turned out to be a strangely formal invitation asking her to be guest of honour at the annual film festival in Derrybeggs.
Molly was so surprised she had to sit down. Derrybeggs! Her eyes filled as she looked at the invitation in her hand and the memories came flooding back. A trip to Derrybeggs would be like going home. Molly’s late parents had hailed from Dublin, but every year the family had holidayed in Derrybeggs, staying in the old family hotel on the lake. Molly had spent many happy summers there and, since the invitation’s arrival, she had been counting the days until she was back in the little village just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean.
In under a week Molly had organised a house-sitter for her London flat, and found what looked like an idyllic writer’s cottage in Derrybeggs. She booked it for a month – that way, she figured, she could have some time to herself, get a feel for the place again, and begin work on her memoir before the opening night of the film festival, which was in three weeks’ time. It would be a relief to be somewhere different, somewhere she could reflect with unbiased perspective, somewhere that the absence of her two dearest friends wouldn’t be waiting for her around every corner, in every favourite haunt.
Ireland was far enough away, yet close enough to get home in a couple of hours if she was needed. This was unlikely, though, as the two people who had needed her most were now unreachable. That was what happened when you were a single woman of a certain age: beloved friends ‒ her ‘team’ as she liked to think of them ‒ began to be picked off, one by one … It wasn’t that her age made her feel invisible to others, as so many women complained of, more as if lately she had been feeling like a ghost in her own life. Of all the many and varied roles she had played on screen she was least prepared for this one, the final act, on her own. There was no rehearsal and no script to follow. She would have to make it up as she went along.
At Passport Control she got a quizzical look from the bloke behind the screen, as he glanced at her passport and back up at her altered appearance. But he simply raised his eyebrows and waved her through.
On the plane with the rest of the Dublin-bound passengers, she claimed her window seat and took out her iPad. She was joined by a rather overweight man in the middle seat and a young girl in the aisle seat, who immediately began to type furiously on her laptop. The man shifted in his seat and smiled at her apologetically. She felt his gaze linger on her and made the mistake of looking back at him.
‘You’re very familiar,’ he said. ‘Do I know you?’
In reply she smiled, shook her head, and put on her headphones. ‘I could swear…’ were the last words she heard.
Behind the counter at the Seashell Merry was scrolling through the latest research postings from her former workplace at Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine
Laboratory. Suddenly her attention was drawn to a news headline:
Four youths have been given a suspended sentence for the manslaughter of Douglas Jeffrey Fairfax. She sucked in her breath. Her lawyer had already been in touch about it but seeing it in print took her unawares – as did the accompanying jolt. For moment Merry was transfixed as the memory assaulted her. She logged out of the site quickly and closed her laptop – thankful that no one had witnessed her reaction.
The Seashell was almost empty now, Kate Carmichael, Ellen Markey and one man remaining. Merry wished they’d get a move on. This seemed unlikely, though, as Kate had – after pointedly glancing at her watch – ordered another two glasses of wine. She was doing it deliberately, of course. The woman knew full well that Merry was longing to close up. She’d been staring at them, willing them to go for the last hour, while they sat on and on, their languid posture and droning conversation daring her to rush them. They reminded Merry of the sort of rich, entitled women who used to hog all the beach loungers and umbrellas in Florida, sipping cocktails, while she and Doug were off surfing in those happier days before the accident. Merry would have liked to tell Kate and Ellen to get lost, to sling their hook – but she didn’t know which would be worse: giving them the satisfaction of letting them see how pissed off she was or biting her tongue and cheerfully depositing their order with a smile. Yet there they were drinking her wine and eating her food while discussing hiring out-of-town caterers instead of the Seashell café for the film festival contract. Merry’s mother Eva – notoriously difficult to provoke ‒ was threatening to resign from the committee as a result.
The festival was turning into a shambles just when local businesses, B-and-Bs and pubs were most depending on it. Derrybeggs was small and finding a new venue for the opening night was unlikely. The community hall was out of action, the nearest hotel banqueting facilities were already taken and somehow, under the new committee, the whole thing had ground to a halt. The locals would not be happy if the festival was a write-off. The two days at the end of July were a much-needed economic injection to the small community, and the Seashell had always done the catering.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the two women left. Now there was only the old guy, sitting in the corner, staring out of the window. He’d been there since she’d started her shift. Hopefully a bit of noise would hurry him and she could close up early.
She went to work quickly, clearing cups and plates, polishing tables, loading glass into the dishwasher. Her mum would come by later and finish off, leaving things ready for the morning. Merry just had to complete her shift, and then she was out of there. Escape was her motivation, these days. Since the accident, she could be around people for only so long.
Setting out some fresh napkins, Merry studied the man at the corner table surreptitiously. Looking out over the peninsula and the inlet beyond, he was very still, lost in thought as the sun sank slowly towards the water. Perhaps he was meditating ‒ something else Merry had never gotten the hang of. She had always been a doing person, and now more than ever she couldn’t bear being still.
As if on cue, her mother materialised, but instead of waving Merry out of the door as she usually did, Eva was giving her conspiratorial glances and, once behind the counter, beckoned her over with a tilt of her head.
‘What’s going on?’ Merry leaned on the new zinc countertop and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes.
‘Him.’ Eva nodded in the old guy’s direction.
‘He’s been here since I started this afternoon,’ Merry said. ‘Only had one coffee, said he had to meet someone here, but he wasn’t sure what time.’
‘That’s just it.’ Eva looked worried. ‘There’s been talk in the village about him. I think he might be lost, or wandering maybe.’
‘I’ll have a word with him …’
‘Don’t upset him, Merry ‒ although your hair …’ Eva shook her head.
‘Don’t start.’ Merry shot her a warning glance before making for the guy’s table. Her shoulder-length hair was colourful at the moment – black at the roots, then pink, graduating to bleached blonde, a sort of horizontal three-tiered effect. When she’d seen it for the first time Eva had cried. ‘You are intent on destroying everything nice about yourself.’ She sniffed.
‘Hi,’ Merry said, reaching his table. ‘Mind if I sit down for a minute?’
He looked around and, without missing a beat, said, ‘Please do. I’d be delighted.’ He had an American accent.
Up close, he wasn’t as old as Merry had thought he was. Maybe not that much older than her mum, actually. He was a bit dishevelled, or perhaps rumpled was a better word. His hair was shaggy and mostly grey, but you could tell it had once been blond. His eyes were deep blue and hooded. When he smiled, she could see he might have been a heart-breaker in his day.
‘And to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?’ He seemed genuinely pleased and, coming from him, the comment was charming, not cheesy.
‘My mum is concerned about you.’ Merry decided not to beat about the bush. ‘That’s her over there.’ She pointed to Eva behind the counter. ‘She’s the boss.’
He waved at Eva, and Merry smiled, watching her mother’s face pink as he called, ‘Hey, Mom!’
‘Why is she concerned?’ He was worried. ‘I haven’t done anything wrong, have I?’
‘Not so far as we know.’ Merry smiled. ‘It’s just that you’ve been here since I started my shift, and we’re going to be closing soon.’
‘What time is it now?’
‘Six. I think I’m supposed to meet someone here, you see, but I can’t remember what time we arranged. Time kinda slips away from me, these days.’ He was apologetic.
‘Well, never mind, tell me who it is and perhaps we can call them.’ ‘Call who?’
‘Whoever it is you’re supposed to be meeting?’ She raised her eyebrows.
‘Oh, you can’t do that.’
‘Why not?’ Merry probed.
‘I wouldn’t want to disturb her. She’s probably at work.’
Now Merry wasn’t sure what to say. ‘What’s her name, your friend?’
He looked evasive. ‘Oh, you wouldn’t know her.’
Merry tried another tack. ‘And you?’ she said gently. ‘What’s your name?’
He looked away, apparently concentrating intently. Then his eyes, clouded with uncertainty, swivelled back to hers. ‘That’s the thing. I can’t seem to remember,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Believe me, I know how stupid that sounds.’
Merry took a deep breath. ‘It’s not stupid at all, just a bit inconvenient, but we won’t worry about that just now, right?’
‘You’re not mad with me, then?’ He looked vulnerable.
‘Of course not!’
He seemed relieved.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Let’s give you a temporary name, just for the moment.’
His face relaxed. ‘That’s an idea!’
She looked at his outfit of jeans and Je suis Charlie T-shirt. ‘Charlie.’ She pointed to his T-shirt. ‘Let’s call you Charlie for now.’
‘Charlie!’ He glanced down at himself. ‘That’s a good name. I like it!’
‘I’m going to bring you some more coffee, Charlie – you stay right there.’ Then Merry went back behind the counter to bring Eva up to speed. ‘We need to call the doctor, Mum.’